Conflict(s) of interest

Every time two fencers face one another on the strip in a tournament, they have to have a certified referee, so the minimum for a bout to take place is three people. That makes for oh, I don’t know, dozens of conflicts of interest. That’s because many fencers are often also coaches, refs, fencers, parents, and bout committee members, along with other roles, so it gets complicated.

If you want weird, for instance, watch over-40 men’s team sabre, with four-person teams, where practically every competitor is also a senior referee, coach, and/or parent, and they are all intense and obnoxious as hell and can destroy the person who is officially refereeing the match if that person is not also tough as nails.

The obvious conflicts can be officially avoided (for instance, a ref can’t belong to the same club as one of the fencers in the bout), and others can be taken into account by a good organizer who knows where the bodies are buried, but mostly we all shrug and get on with things, and it usually works out, oddly enough.

I always think of one of my bouts where it didn’t work out so well.

In 2001, I was a month away from my 50th birthday, but I was training hard. My clubmate Dave, a former sabre National Champion, was unofficially coaching our sabre group and running drills, so I was technically solid and temporarily very fit indeed. I entered the Division IA National Championships because it seemed like a nice idea and because I had a day free. Division IA, as I have mentioned before, is a consolation prize. No national points are awarded, it doesn’t matter for Olympic qualification, and it’s basically a neat tournament in which you can earn a classification.

I was doing well that day, but to get into the medal round, I would have to win my second elimination bout, which was in the top 16, against a fencer named Sonia who was pretty strong.

The cast of characters was Tim, Dave, George, Sonia, and me. The total was five people, but that total included four fencers, four coaches, and four referees, because that’s how fencing is.

The ref for the bout, Tim, was a Division I senior men’s sabre fencer who was in contention for an Olympic spot. Tim fenced at the same college and at the same time as my kid, speaking of complex webs of relationships, but it wasn’t a conflict for the purposes of that bout, at least as far as the person assigning refs was concerned. It wasn’t even a conflict for Tim, who probably didn’t know I was the Brandeis co-captain’s mother. Tim and I knew each other to talk to, but that was about it.

My strip-coach was Dave, my clubmate. Dave was a former National Champion, and a top-level sabre referee at the tournament, but he was done for the day, so he took off his navy referee blazer and came to provide support to me in his gray trousers and button-down shirt. This practice was officially frowned on and later forbidden, but people often did it at that point, so it wasn’t considered a conflict.

George, my opponent’s coach, was Ukrainian by nationality, an Olympic gold medalist. He was also, like Tim and Dave, a top-level sabre referee. He was an important college coach as well, and very intense.

Sonia, my opponent, was tall, strong, and fast, and seemed nice, though I didn’t know her well. She didn’t need this event. She was already rated A, and she had been mowing down slower, smaller women’s sabre fencers all year, even though her game was not complicated. Her coach George had high hopes for her. She was also the only person involved in the bout who was not also a national referee. (I was also a national-level sabre referee, though I wasn’t working that day.)

And then we began to fence and things went downhill. To put it simply, George didn’t like the way Tim was officiating. George thought I was doing something incorrect, and that Tim was deliberately refusing to see my error. He was howling at Tim from the sidelines, which is technically not supposed to happen, and tends to happen all the time.

It doesn’t matter what George thought I was doing wrong. Sabre is weird and there are some subjective bits, even when the rules and conventions don’t change every year. You can’t appeal a referee’s calls if they’re not using the rules incorrectly. You learn to figure out how the referee is calling things and adapt. There wasn’t any instant replay yet, and wouldn’t have been in the Division I-A round of 16 anyway.

I just concentrated on doing what worked and trying to ignore what George was yelling, and I went point-for-point with Sonia. Dave kept me calm and told me not to worry. He didn’t argue with anyone. He knew better.

And I beat Sonia, by one touch, to everyone’s surprise, including mine.

But when the bout was over, George started berating Tim, loudly and in his face. While he did it, Sonia and I shook hands, as one does, and Dave told me quietly to unhook and walk away while they were arguing. He was right, because the moment the score was recorded and I unhooked, the bout was officially over, and George couldn’t do anything about it.

Except there was one thing George could do unofficially, and God help him, he did it. I saw Tim a little while later, and he was white in the face and shaking. “What’s the matter?” I said.

“George told me he would referee me the way I refereed his fencers,” said Tim.

George had threatened to destroy Tim’s Olympic hopes, over a bout, a very minor bout, in an event that didn’t even award national points.

So I went and found a friend of mine, who was also a high-level international referee, one of the best, and also a fellow women’s sabre fencer whom I had known for several years. I told her what had happened.

“I’ll take care of it,” she said, and she did. It wasn’t just that George wasn’t allowed to referee Tim after that; I actually didn’t see George ever referee sabre nationally again. I don’t know whether that was his choice or whether he was sanctioned. George also took all his fencers out of sabre and made them fence epee. One of his fencers told me he said it was “because the sabre referees cheat.”

Me? I won my next bout, lost the one after that, finished tied for third, got a bronze medal, earned an A classification that I would never re-earn again, and promptly started having overuse injuries, because I was really too old to be doing that kind of thing. It was glorious having an A, though, even if it was a one-time thing. There weren’t a lot of them in women’s sabre back then.

Tim, meanwhile, made the USA Olympic team in 2004, 2008, and 2012. He won a team silver medal in the 2008 Olympics. He’s a coach now, with his own club.

I didn’t see much of Sonia after that year, and Dave finished his Ph.D. and became a very important person in his field, which, along with having a family, messed with his fencing big time, and he had to give it up.

I guess it all worked out in the end, and now I owed a favor to my female friend (the one who “took care” of things afterwards). So you can bet that years later at a national tournament, when my helpful female referee friend (who was also a top-level coach) ran up and asked me if she could borrow my club jacket to put over her referee blazer so she could coach one of her fencers while she was officially supposed to be refereeing, I lent my jacket to her. It was a polite fiction; a whole slew of other refs were watching that bout along with her, after all, because it was a good bout and worth watching.

No conflict of interest there. Or an infinite number, whichever.

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